Friday, November 30, 2007

The Universality of Faith

In a recent posting, I responded to scientist Paul Davies' New York Times op-ed piece of November 24 entitled, "Taking Science on Faith." In my posting, I noted that all inquirers - whether in religion or science, etc. - accept as true certain basic beliefs about the nature of reality and that these basic beliefs cannot themselves be proven as true. Rather, I noted that such basic beliefs "must be held as true - taken on faith - in order to make it possible for rational inquiry to begin and proceed in the first place." In other words, there's a sense in which all forms of inquiry - including science - are "faith based" in this broadly defined meaning of that term.

Not everyone, of course, agrees, and the critical responses to Davies' article range from the civil to the disrespectful.

In the debates between science and religion, I think we too often restrict the meaning of “faith” to a narrowly defined understanding of “religion” as “blind faith,” i.e., something which is divorced from the realities of everyday living (which are open to public scrutiny). And sometimes both critics and proponents too narrowly restrict the meaning of "faith" to the intellectual acceptance of the truth of certain propositions or ideas.

By contrast, I think that the 20th Century religious thinker and social theorist H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) does a much better job. Rather than staying mired in the aporias of current debates over narrow (and sometimes highly prejudicial) definitions, Niebuhr helps us reframe the discussion in terms of a much broader context. He does this by describing faith as a genuinely and universally human phenomenon with implicitly religious dimensions.

Niebuhr defines faith as “the attitude and action of confidence in, and fidelity to, certain realities as the source of value and the objects of loyalty” [Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1960), p. 16]. And in an earlier work, here’s what Niebuhr wrote about faith so defined:

“As long as a man lives he must believe in something for the sake of which he lives; without belief in something that makes life worth living man cannot exist. If, as Tolstoi points out in his Confession, man does not see the temporality and futility of the finite he will believe in the finite as worth living for; if he can no longer have faith in the value of the finite he will believe in the infinite or else die. Man as a practical, living being never exists without a god or gods; some things there are to which he must cling as the sources and goals of his activity, the centers of value. As a rule men are polytheists, referring now to this and now to that valued being as the source of life’s meaning. Sometimes they live for Jesus’ God, sometimes for country and sometimes for Yale. [And I think Niebuhr would agree that we could add that others live for the pursuit of scientific inquiry.] For the most part they make gods out of themselves or out of the work of their own hands, living for their own glory as persons and as communities. In any case the faith that life is worth living and the definite reference of life’s meaning to specific beings or values is as inescapable a part of human existence as the activity of reason. It is no less true that man is a believing animal in this sense than the he is a rational animal. Without such faith men might exist, but not as selves. Being selves they as surely have something for which to live as selves as being rational they have objects to understand” [The Meaning of Revelation (MacMillan, 1941), pp. 77-78].

For Niebuhr, then, the question “Does science rely on faith?” is not the most basic question. The most basic question is: “Does living as a human being in the world require faith?” His answer is “yes,” because for Niebuhr, faith is not merely a religious phenomenon - it is a human phenomenon which has religious implications.

Here’s another way to put it:

“For Niebuhr, the theological question is not ‘Does a god exist?’ or ‘Ought there to be a god?’ but ‘What being or beings have the value of deity?’” [Victor Anderson, Pragmatic Theology: Negotiating the Intersections of an American Philosophy of Religion and Public Theology (SUNY, 1998), p. 87].

From Niebuhr’s perspective, whatever serves as the center(s) of value for my life - whether it’s Jesus Christ, Guinness stout, scientific method, a significant other, Marxism, capitalism, etc. - this (or some combination of these) is my “god” and thus gives expression to my faith.

In his posthumously published The Responsible Self: An Essay in Christian Moral Philosophy, Niebuhr further develops this understanding of faith by making a distinction between two forms of faith: faith as trust versus faith as distrust. "Faith as trust or distrust accompanies all our encounters with others and qualifies all our responses," he argues [The Responsible Self (Harper & Row, 1963), p. 118]. And he continues:

"Faith is the attitude of the self in its existence toward all the existences that surround it, as begins to be relied upon or to be suspected. It is the attitude that appears in all the wariness and confidence of life as it moves about among the living. It is fundamentally trust or distrust in being itself. Such faith is an ingredient in all knowing, as the reliance present in such knowing on the constancy of the processes observed in nature and as reliance also on the fellow men who report their observations. It is present in its negative form of distrust in all the inquiries we make about the group actions of our national or religious friends and allies. Such faith is never the antithesis of knowledge but its accompaniment; though in some instances there is preponderance of faith over knowledge, and in others preponderance of knowledge over faith, as may be evident in the form of a statement. 'I believe you' is a statement of faith though it contains an element of knowledge or acknowledgment. 'Many of you are members of Glasgow University' is a statement of fact, but is said with some confidence in what I have been told and seen" [The Responsible Self, p. 118; emphasis added].

If I am reading Niebuhr rightly, then faith as trust is the necessary prerequisite to intellectually accepting the truth of propositions about reality, while faith as distrust is the necessary prerequisite for intellectually rejecting those propositions. If that is true, and if Niebuhr is right that faith so understood is a universally human phenomenon, then critics who reject faith per se are, in reality, not rejecting faith per se. Rather, they are rejecting a particular and narrow definition of faith (and, ironically, they are doing so on the basis of faith - in this case, faith as distrust). So if Niebuhr is right, it matters not what the particular object(s) of faith may be (whether explicitly theological, atheological, or even anti-theological). For simply by virtue of being human, the critics of faith live and conduct inquiry just as much in reliance upon the attitude and action of faith as religious persons do.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Reflections on the Word of God

Playing off of his reading of Karl Barth, Fr. Chris Epperson recently offered some interesting reflections over at “The Eternal Pursuit” on the relationship between the Word of God Written and the Word of God Incarnate. He writes:

For Barth, as I understand him, theology begins with the Word of God. By this, Barth means Jesus. The ultimate revelation of God comes in the person of Jesus, the Word made Flesh. The Bible, of course, contains the story of the revelation, but the Bible itself is not the revelation. This is a somewhat subtle distinction. ...

Barth was concerned about bibliolatry, making the text the object of devotion, rather than the revelation contained in it. Many Christians seem to understand this, and it seems that many don’t. I love Jesus. I love the Bible. Does the order in rank make a difference?

(Read it all here.)

In response, I wrote the following thoughts which were posted in the comments section of Fr. Epperson’s posting:

I think the order in rank makes a difference, but the distinction needs to be carefully made.

Jesus Christ is THE Word of God (cf. the Prologue to the Gospel according to John), and Holy Scripture is the Word of God in a secondary sense. Scripture derives its authority from Jesus Christ, not vice versa.

I do not believe this distinction in any way detracts from the authority of scripture as the record of God's revelation and as "the rule and ultimate standard of faith" (BCP, p. 877). Indeed, we can know nothing about Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior - as the definitive revelation of God's intentions and purposes - apart from scripture. Nonetheless, I think it's important to make the distinction lest we fall into the very 'bibliolatry' you write about.

I find it interesting and disconcerting that some Christians seem to espouse an almost Islamic view of Holy Scripture. Orthodox Islam teaches that God commanded the Prophet Muhammed to "Recite!," and Muhammed obediently wrote down everything God said to him in Arabic. This means that when Muslims recite the Koran in Arabic, they believe they are reciting the very words of God Himself.

This Islamic understanding of the Word of God is quite different from the Christian understanding of the Word of God as preeminently a Person rather than a book (or the words in a book). And yet, there are Christians who conflate the two, making the Bible the Word of God in a sense that arguably rivals or even displaces Jesus Christ as the Word of God.

There are Christians who reject this primary/secondary distinction between Jesus as the Word of God and scripture as the Word of God. For example, here’s what the premillenial, dispensationalist theologian Charles C. Ryrie says about this view:

The neoorthodox or Barthian view of inspiration is that the Bible is a witness to the Word of God, though a Barthian would not be adverse to saying also that the Bible is the Word of God. But this is true only in a secondary sense (Christ being primarily the Word), and his Bible is full of errors because it is merely the product of fallible writers. The Barthian accepts the teachings of liberalism concerning the Bible and then tries to give it a measure of authority on the ground that in a fallible way it does point to Christ [from A Survey of Bible Doctrine (The Moody Bible Institute, 1972), quoted in The Ryrie Study Bible (Moody Press, 1978), p. 1848].

It is certainly true that, in making a distinction between the Word of God that is Jesus Christ and the Word of God that is the Bible, Barth accepts the historically conditioned character of the Bible. But to characterize the Barthian position as one that views the Bible as “full of errors,” and as “merely the product of fallible writers” that “in a fallible way … does point to Christ” is a caricature.

By contrast, it’s worth considering what Barth himself has to say (I’ve emboldened portions for emphasis):

In every age … the Evangelical decision will have to be a decision for Holy Scripture as such. As such, of course, it is only a sign. Indeed, it is the sign of a sign, i.e., of the prophetic-apostolic witness of revelation as the primary sign of Jesus Christ. Of course, the Church can only read Scripture to hear the prophets and apostles, just as it can only hear the latter to see Jesus Christ with them, and to find in Him, and properly, ultimately and decisively only in Him, the prior direct and material and absolute authority from which its [Scripture’s] authority depends, on which it is founded and by which it is everywhere and always measured. But again, it can distinguish between seeing Jesus Christ, hearing His prophets and apostles and reading their Scriptures, and yet it cannot separate these things, it cannot try to have the one without the other. It cannot see without hearing and it cannot hear without reading. Therefore if it would see Jesus Christ, it is directed and bound to His primary sign and therefore to the sign of this sign – if it would see Jesus Christ, it is directed and bound to Holy Scripture. …

If we accept the witness of Holy Scripture, then implicitly we accept the fact that, quite irrespective of the way in which they were humanly and historically conditioned, its authors were objectively true, reliable and trustworthy witnesses. It is not merely that we recognize their opinions to be good and pious, or appreciate their part and significance in religious history. We perceive rather that it pleased God the King of Israel, to whom the power of their witness is pledged as to the Lord, to raise up these true witnesses by His Word and work [Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: A Selection by Helmut Gollwitzer, translated and edited by G. W. Bromiley (T. & T. Clark, 1961) pp. 74 & 77].

Contrary to Ryrie’s charge, Barth says that in spite of the historically conditioned character of Holy Scripture, it points to Christ in a supremely authoritative, trustworthy, and “objectively reliable” way.

In his now out-of-print book Faith and Practice, Episcopal bishop Frank E. Wilson writes about scripture in a way that seems to me to be compatible with the Barthian perspective. Here’s what Wilson says:

The Bible is the record of the revelation of God. God does not reveal Himself exclusively through a book. He reveals Himself in many ways, but chiefly through people and supremely in our Lord Jesus Christ. Books are made by men. God did not make the Bible – men wrote it. Therefore, when we say that the Bible is an inspired book, we do not mean to suggest that it is the result of divine dictation and, for that reason, exempt from the possibility of human blunders. We mean that the men who did the writing were actively seeking God’s will, inscribing accounts of God’s dealing with human life, and that the spiritual reliability of these accounts was tested over long periods of time by the people for whom they were written. Only in a secondary way can the Bible itself be called a revelation of God. It is the record of His revelation which culminated in the Person of Jesus Christ.

The Bible is important because of Christ – not the other way around. Christ did not come to deliver a book. He came to live a Life
[Faith and Practice Revised Edition (Morehouse, 1967), p. 45].

We can’t know about Jesus as Lord and Savior apart from the special revelation given in Holy Scripture. But we also cannot elevate scripture to a status more exalted than Jesus. The Word Incarnate is Lord of the Word Written, and He sanctifies that written Word as the means by which (in the words of Thomas Cranmer’s wonderful Collect) “we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life” [BCP, p. 236].

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Taking Basic Beliefs on Faith: Common Ground for Science and Religion

Paul Davies is the director of a research center called BEYOND: The Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University. Here's what the website for BEYOND says about its purpose:

For thousands of years, people have gazed in wonder at the world about them and asked the big questions: How did the universe come to exist? What is it made of? Where do human beings fit into the great cosmic scheme? Is there a meaning to it all?

Such questions have mostly been restricted to religion and philosophy. Now, scientists are addressing them too. On every front, science is transforming our world view and challenging age-old assumptions about the nature of the physical universe and our place within it.

BEYOND is a pioneering international center at Arizona State University specifically dedicated to confronting the big questions of existence raised by these stunning scientific advances, and facilitating new research initiatives that transcend traditional subject categories.

In an op-ed piece for today's New York Times entitled "Taking Science on Faith," Paul Davies argues that, like religion, science is grounded in faith. In other words, science as we know it is a faith-based enterprise. Here's part of what he writes:

Science, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term “doubting Thomas” well illustrates the difference. In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.

The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.

The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion — all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do? ...

... both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

I'm not sure why "a complete account of physical existence" is either desirable or necessary. But I do find Davies' main point intriguing. There are, indeed, basic beliefs that cannot be proven true. Rather, they must be held as true - taken on faith - in order to make it possible for rational inquiry to begin and proceed in the first place. I'm thinking of believing the truth of propositions such as, "The world exists," or, "Other minds exist." Or the one Davies cites: "Nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way."

I don't think that holding such basic beliefs as true without irrefutable proof that they're true is irrational. On the contrary, I think that consistently rejecting such basic beliefs as true - refusing to take them as true on faith - would be irrational.

The point I'm making is that faith - placing our trust in certain basic beliefs for which we cannot obtain absolute certainty - is both rational and necessary. And rather than finding it disconcerting, I find it reassuring that, for all of their differences, both science and religion share at least this much in common: both take certain beliefs as true on faith.

The rest of Davies' essay is worth a look. Read it all.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Generous Obedience to the Mind of the Church

Today I came across an excerpt from a pastoral letter issued by the House of Bishops in the wake of General Convention's authorization of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. According to William Sydnor, "the tendency throughout the [Episcopal] Church was to be quite casual about observing the rubrics in the 1892 Book" [The Prayer Book Through the Ages Revised Edition (Morehouse, 1997), p. 104]. Recognizing that the norm of compliance with Prayer Book rubrics is one of the conditions necessary for maintaining the Episcopal Church's identity and unity, the bishops offered the following observations and issued a directive in their 1928 pastoral letter:

There is need in the Church as in the State to sound a call to loyalty. Your Bishops, assembled in triennial session, make an appeal for a loyal recognition of our common obligation to render generous obedience in observing in their integrity the provisions of our enriched Book of Common Prayer. ... Such loyalty does not, of course, preclude as occasions may require, special services as provided for in the rubrics of the Prayer Book or authorized by the Bishops; but it does demand of the authorized Ministers of the Church obedience to the rubrical directions of its authorized book of worship, as at all times binding upon priest and people. These rubrics and the various offices of the Book are the solemn expression of the mind of the Church. ... The liberty of experiemental usage allowed during the period of revision should now cease [Quoted in Sydnor's The Prayer Book Through the Ages, p. 104].

In a time when "rubrical laxity" in all orders of ministry runs rampant, it's hard to even imagine anything like this being written today. Could our bishops today even come close to agreeing that all clergy (including themselves) need to exercise this kind of generous obedience? I doubt it.

Nevertheless, the point that the Prayer Book's rubrics provide "the solemn expression of the mind of the Church" remains valid. And while it may be true that there are times and situations that call for greater flexibility with regard to the rubrics, those are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Generous obedience to Prayer Book rubrics is part of the discipline of our Church, and, as such, is one of the ways that we are "discipled" - shaped and formed - as uniquely Anglican/Episcopal followers of Jesus Christ. The extent to which we are unwilling to submit to the mind of the Church as expressed in our Prayer Book's rubrics is the extent to which we substitute the subjective preferences of private prayer for common prayer. Given the centrality of common prayer to our tradition, laying aside that discipline entails nothing less than the undoing of our core identity and a rejection of our unique approach to Christian discipleship.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Creeds and Evangelism

Over at Episcopal Café, Derek Olsen is at it again. This time, he’s making a case for why the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds provide powerful resources for Episcopalians to do the work of evangelism. The creeds give us the reasons we need for sharing the hope of the Gospel. We don't have to reinvent the wheel because everything we need is right there in the regular services of worship provided by The Book of Common Prayer.

Here’s part of what Olsen says:

Turning to the Scriptures, St. Peter suggests that among the basic equipment of the Christian is having at hand and in mind “an account for the hope that is in you with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15). That is, when questions arise about our faith we need something to fall back on, something to guide our way in explaining what we believe. Now—here’s my dream; here’s my vision. If I were the Evangelism Czar for the Episcopal Church, I’d try and put together a brief yet comprehensive statement of what we think on things. I’d want it to be broad—we need to cover our major bases, and yet I’d want it to be beautiful too. I’d want it, in its simplicity, to hint at depths of thought and experience that could be evoked and not exhausted by a tantalizing turn of phrase. If I could pare it down to something around one hundred words, I’d send out this “account for hope” to all the Episcopal churches with instructions that it be memorized so it could be readily called to mind whenever a useful opportunity might arise.

But, hey—why stop there? Why not have a second version as well? Maybe something twice the length of the first that might clear up a few more connections but also evoke greater mysteries and introduce some language that cuts to the heart of the human religious experience—light, breath, life abundant… Embed some deeper poetry, some metaphors to be chewed upon and savored, and you might have a worthy follow-up to the first that again, isn’t just about knowledge, but that evokes a new way of being and relating to the world in which we live. Of course—I’d want that one to be memorized too.

Who am I kidding, though, right? There’s no way this crazy scheme could work, is there?
Actually…it’s already been done. The texts have already been written. Not only that—they’ve already been infiltrated into your Book of Common Prayer. Many of you have already even accomplished the hard part—the memorizing part. There’s just one little catch. The infiltration has been so successful, has been so complete, that few realize the treasure that we got. Instead of recognizing this amazing “account for hope” for what it is, it’s something that we mumble through between the sermon and prayers at Eucharist, or stick between prayers in the Daily Office.

Yes, I’m talking about the creeds. We’ve got them. Many of us know them by heart—by rote, even—and therein lies the problem. We know them so well, have become so accustomed to them, that we’ve lost sight of their power—and their potential when it comes to evangelism. …

What the creeds evoke, what they invite us into, is hope. Hope that there’s more to reality than what can be touched and quantified. Hope that death does not win in the end. Hope that we are not merely isolated islands in trajectories of decay but that as our life is caught up in the reality of God we are somehow bound closer to our fellow creatures as well. But the creeds do not simply give us hope; they give us language and a framework for understanding the spiritual stirrings and movings that we detect in our lives. They give us a vocabulary to understand the movement of the Spirit, the breaking forth of resurrection power. For the creeds are grounded in our experiences of the God of whom they speak.

Read it all.

Norms are Necessary

A recent posting over at “The Anglican Centrist” addresses the issue of violations of the Episcopal Church's Constitution and Canons. In particular, “The Anglican Centrist” is concerned about the discrepancy between the disciplinary action which may be taken by the Presiding Bishop against bishops like Robert Duncan on the one hand, and the many violations of the doctrine, discipline, and worship of this Church which go on all the time yet hardly ever merit notice (much less response) from governing authorities. This includes things like openly practicing Communion without baptism.

I think “The Anglican Centrist” hits a nail on the head with this observation:

Probably, and frankly, if we were more consistently faithful to our polity, canons and rubrics – we wouldn't be quite in this mess today. The way of ‘everyone doing what seems right in their own eyes’ is not the way of those living in relationships of mutuality and commitment – and that’s what it means when we live under the discipline of the Church.

This tendency towards “everyone doing what seems right in their own eyes” constitutes the problem of Anomic Anglicanism, which serves as a corrosive acid for maintaining any kind of community worthy of the name.

In the comments to this blog posting, I was particularly struck by this anonymous response:

As regards discipline, it seems to me that the first thing to bear in mind about it is that it is not intended to be ‘punitive’ or ‘exclusive’ or other negative sounding words. It’s about being ‘discipled’. Discipline is a gift, and it goes to the gift of integrity and identity.

As such, one mightn’t look at the canons as 'rulers' to beat folks with, but rather ‘rules’ to keep folks together.

It’s about bonds and boundaries for the health of the One Body – not barriers to entry or walls of exclusion.

In light of these ideas, checking i.d.’s (in the case of baptism) is not at all the point. It’s a question of how we invite people and to what steps do we invite them – believing as we do that it is God’s will that all come into the saving embrace of the Christ of the Universe.

I think this response goes a long way toward correcting critics who charge that Anglican Centrists and Creedal Christians are a “law and order party” – a bunch of Pharisees – who uphold the letter of the law at the expense of its spirit. That’s nothing but a caricature. The reality is that upholding norms, rules, etc. is not an end in itself, but rather serves as a means to the larger end of upholding the unity of the Body of Christ. For it is not possible to form and sustain the common purpose and vision of genuine community without shared norms to which all members are accountable.

And so the concern for norms, rules, and discipline derives from a concern for the conditions that make it possible for us to be the Church in the first place. Indeed, until the issue of shared norms and accountability to them is settled, it is not possible to get on with the work God calls us to do in the world. Lacking clear norms, we spend all of our time negotiating or arguing about how we’re supposed to be doing what we’re called to do. We get sidetracked from the focus on mission. It’s rather like standing up in the pulpit and spending the whole time clearing one’s throat instead of getting on with the sermon.

Contrary to what some critics charge, the concern for norms, rules, and discipline doesn’t necessarily translate into inflexibility. Boundaries are not barriers. But without norms that establish boundaries, the self-differentiation necessary for creating community can’t happen. And the term “Church” collapses into a projection of individual preferences and interests that set the stage for competing wills to power rather than the cooperation among diverse members of a common Body envisioned by the apostle Paul.

Conflict and Innovation: Learning from the Prayer Book Tradition

I’ve recently been reviewing the Prayer Book tradition in preparation for teaching. I haven’t looked at this history in detail since before “the recent unpleasantness,” so some of the things I’ve been reading about have struck a chord in a new way. Among other resources, I’ve particularly benefited from reading William Sydnor’s The Prayer Book Through the Ages Revised Edition (Morehouse, 1997). For a slender volume, it provides a fairly detailed and comprehensive look at each of the English and American Prayer Books.

Based upon my recent reading and research, and with the acknowledgement that I’m skimming the surface of very complex historical and theological matters, there are two points I wish to highlight about Anglicanism when viewed through the lens of the Prayer Book tradition. Those two points are (1) the centrality of conflict and (2) the tendency towards innovation.

First point: the centrality of conflict.

Take the first two Prayer Books of 1549 and 1552. Viewed from the perspective of their reception, both were failures. 1549, for example, went too far for the conservatives and not far enough for the reformers. Here’s how William Sydnor summarizes it:

“In producing the 1549 Book, Cranmer and his colleagues were sincerely and honestly seeking to lead the Church of England into a genuine revival of its worship practices. They aspired to help worshippers find greater meaning and significance in practices which were grounded in the rich heritage of Christendom. … The attempt failed from every point of view. The conservatives disliked its innovations and the omission of old services; the reformers thought it retained too much of the old and did not go far enough in innovation” [The Prayer Book Through the Ages Revised Edition (Morehouse, 1997), p. 12].

This widespread dissatisfaction motivated Prayer Book revision, which produced the more Reformed 1552 Prayer Book. William Sydnor notes that it was “unpopular everywhere” [The Prayer Book Through the Ages, p. 23]. Given that reception, perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing that the 1552 Prayer Book was in official use for a mere 8 months before ultra-Catholic “Bloody Mary” canned it for the Latin liturgy.

The tide turned in favor of the Prayer Book when Elizabeth I ascended the throne on November 17, 1558. With the Queen’s backing, the 1559 Prayer Book was authorized by an Act of Uniformity that passed by only 3 votes. Penalties for failing to use the new Prayer Book included “a fine of one year’s stipend and six months imprisonment for the first offense, forfeit of all ‘spiritual promotions’ and one year imprisonment for the second, life imprisonment for the third” [William Sydnor, The Prayer Book Through the Ages, p. 27]. Given such penalties, perhaps Sydnor is guilty of understatement in noting that there was “little opposition” under Elizabeth’s reign to bringing back the Prayer Book.

Similar use of political force was used to institute the 1662 Prayer Book. Sydnor notes that “with the passage of the Act of Uniformity in 1662 civil power went a step further [than retaining practices to which the Puritans objected], requiring ministers not only to adopt the new arrangements, but also to declare the unlawfulness of their past conduct [under Cromwell’s Presbyterian Commonwealth] and to submit to Episcopal ordination” [p. 50]. Part of what this meant was limits to inclusion. Presbyterianism, for example, was officially banned from the Church of England.

Dissatisfaction, protest, revolt, lobbying with the like-minded for reform suitable to one’s own preferences against opponents, exclusion, and the threat and/or reality of violent coercion: these all mark the birth of the Prayer Book tradition in England.

In a word, conflict is central to the foundations of what over time formed the unique trajectory of Christian belief and practice we now refer to as “Anglicanism.” As part of the warp and woof of the Prayer Book tradition, conflict is in our ecclesial DNA. So we shouldn’t be surprised or alarmed that something as central to our identity as conflict serves as a governing force in the unfolding story of today’s Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. It’s part of who we are.

Second point: the tendency towards innovation.

There are many examples of this within the English Prayer Book tradition, as the ultra-Catholic and ultra-Protestant factions would no doubt have attested in response to the 1549, 1552, and 1559 Prayer Books. For the purposes of this posting, however, I want to focus on the revisions in the Proposed Book of 1786, the precursor to the first American Prayer Book of 1789. The Proposed Book included a number of changes from the 1662 Prayer Book to which English bishops strongly objected. Here are a few of those changes:

1. Under the influence of Enlightenment rationalism and deism, the Proposed Book “deemphasized distinctive doctrines such as the Trinity and the atonement and offered a less exalted view of the sacraments and the episcopacy” [Jeffrey Lee, Opening the Prayer Book (Cowley, 1999), p. 62].

2. The Proposed Book eliminated the Nicene Creed from the Communion service.

3. The Proposed Book eliminated the Athanasian Creed from Morning Prayer on Major Feast days.

4. The Proposed Book eliminated the phrase “he descended into hell” from the Apostles’ Creed.

The English bishops viewed such proposed revisions as signifying at least a downplaying if not an explicit rejection of the substantive creedal content of the historic Christian faith. In other words, the American proposal was an innovation that went beyond revision by breaking in specific ways with the English Prayer Book tradition. And so in response the English bishops wrote:

“ … we cannot help being afraid … lest we should be the instrument of establishing an Ecclesiastical system which will be called a branch of the Church of England, but afterwards may appear to have departed from it essentially, either in doctrine or in discipline” [quoted in William Sydnor’s The Prayer Book Through the Ages, p. 60].

Here’s how the pre-General Convention meeting of Anglicans in the newly formed United States of America met the objections of the English bishops:

“The ‘southern states’ responded to this communication at the second session of their 1786 Convention (October 10-11) by restoring both the Nicene Creed and the permissive use of the descent-into-hell clause of the Apostles’ Creed. This action received the approval of English bishops and cleared the way for [William] White of Pennsylvania and [Samuel] Provoost of New York to sail to England the next month for Episcopal consecration” [William Sydnor, The Prayer Book Through the Ages, p. 60].

One wonders if these concessions would have been made were it not for the fact that the American Church was looking to the English bishops to consecrate American bishops. True, Samuel Seabury was the first bishop consecrated for the American church, having secured the episcopate with his consecration by bishops in the Episcopal Church of Scotland on November 14, 1784. But Seabury’s consecration did not secure an American episcopate in communion with the Church of England, and in particular with the See of Canterbury (note that William White was not consecrated by English bishops that included Archbishop of Canterbury John Moore until 1787).

Is it possible that if we had already secured an American episcopate from the Church of England prior to consideration of a new Prayer Book, the proposed downplaying of historic, creedal Christianity would have been enshrined in the American Prayer Book tradition from the start?

I’m sure that liturgical scholars can weigh in on that question with far more authority than I can, but thinking about all of this leads me to ponder another question.

To what extent does the fact that the Episcopal Church got its “autonomous” grounding in Enlightenment rationalism and deism help explain a tendency – embodied from the beginning in the Proposed Book of Common Prayer of 1786 – towards an innovative if not heterodox theology? Is it really a departure from Episcopal Church tradition, in other words, if our leaders – lay or ordained – publicly question things like the Trinity, the atonement, or the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in the economy of salvation? Hasn’t that kind of questioning and free-thinking been there from the very beginning of our consolidation as a church body? Isn’t that a part of who we are as an American Church?

Anglican theologian James E. Griffiss writes that “our history and foundations [as Anglicans] demonstrate a pattern of continuity and change – continuity with the tradition of the gospel we have received in Christ and, at the same time, a willingness to interpret and understand that gospel as changing situations might require” [The Anglican Vision (Cowley, 1997), p. 101]. As part of my learning from the Prayer Book tradition, I’m led to ask the question, how much conflict and how much innovation is continuous with the gospel we have received in Christ? Are there limits, in other words, to healthy, productive conflict and innovation within our Church? And if so, what are the criteria by which we recognize those limits?

In conclusion, I don’t think that conflict and heterodoxy are necessarily the worst evils that can beset us. Conflict can offer opportunities for insight and growth that would otherwise be lacking. So it’s not by definition a bad thing. It all depends on how conflict is managed and how we respond to it. And, like heresy, heterodoxy can provide opportunities for clarification and differentiation. Again, like conflict, it depends on how we respond to it.

The problem we face today, it seems to me, is that we lack publicly recognized, institutionally grounded ways of adjudicating conflict and responding to heterodoxy (and, for that matter, heresy). And so the forces of conflict that are central to our Anglican tradition, as well as those tendencies towards innovation that push us to challenge the limits of scripture and tradition, can sometimes contribute to the free-for-all of pursuing subjective preferences at the expense of the common good.

Does the Prayer Book tradition offer internal resources to help deal with these matters, or do we need intervention from the outside? Does Anglicanism have the resources within itself to meet the challenges of our time, or will common prayer collapse into cacophony under the weight of our tradition’s internal drive towards conflict and innovation?

Only time will tell.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Holy Scripture

The Collect appointed for Proper 28 has always been one of my favorites:

"Blessed Lord, which hast caused all holy Scripture to be written for our learning; grant us that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them; that by patience and comfort of thy holy word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou has given us in our savior Jesus Christ."

I think that this prayer beautifully summarizes an Anglican approach to the purpose and authority of Holy Scripture. Below is a sermon I preached a few years back on this Collect.

Sermon for Proper 28

Once, an elderly woman who was a cradle Episcopalian joined an ecumenical Bible study. After attending for a few weeks, she was so blown away by the experience that she made a special point to tell her parish priest about it. “Fr. John,” she said, “I just can’t believe what I’ve discovered. I never knew how much the Bible quotes the Prayer Book!”

Many Episcopalians are just not familiar or comfortable with the Bible. And let’s face it: when it comes to chapter and verse, our Baptist friends run circles around us. But here’s the point we need to hear: just because we Episcopalians don’t memorize Bible chapter and verse, it does not follow that scripture is unimportant in our tradition. Nothing could be farther from the truth! Virtually every page of The Book of Common Prayer quotes, paraphrases, or alludes to specific passages of Holy Scripture. Our liturgies are scripture saturated through and through. And so every time we gather for worship, we not only hear scripture read and proclaimed; we pray scripture.

This high regard for Holy Scripture has been there since the beginning of the Anglican tradition. Starting in the 16th Century, Anglicanism has affirmed that Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation, and that anything not read in scripture or proven by scripture, cannot be required as an article of faith or held as a belief necessary to salvation [cf. Article VI of the “Articles of Religion,” BCP, p. 868; and “The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral,” BCP, p. 877]. Anglicanism is a tradition which upholds the Bible as “the rule and ultimate standard of faith” [“The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral,” BCP, p. 877].

We hear that high regard for scripture in the collect appointed for today. Written by Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer and included in the first Prayer Book of 1549, it’s worth praying again and paying attention to the words:

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them; that, by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

In compressed form, this Collect tells us a lot about the Anglican approach to the holy Scriptures. In particular, it helps us address two questions: “Who wrote the Bible?” and, “What is the purpose of the Bible?” Let’s briefly look at how this short prayer helps us answer these questions.

First, who wrote the Bible? This Collect says that God “hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written.” Notice that it does not say that God wrote the Scriptures. God did not write the Bible. Human beings did. However, God “caused” human beings to write the Bible. “Caused,” not in the sense that God appointed every word which was then written down verbatim by a human being. But, rather, “caused” in the sense that the Holy Spirit inspired the Bible’s human authors to faithfully record God’s self-revelation to the people of Israel and in the person of Jesus Christ.

To say that every word of the Bible is a word dictated by God is a view of biblical inspiration more at home in Islam than in historic Christianity. In the orthodox Islamic view of the Koran, for example, God commanded the Prophet Muhammed to “Recite!,” and Muhammed obediently wrote down everything God said to him in Arabic. This means that when Muslims recite the Koran in Arabic, they believe they are reciting the very words of God Himself. This is not a traditional Christian, much less Anglican, understanding of divine inspiration.

On this point, one of our bishops gets it right: “When we say that the Bible is an inspired book, we do not mean to suggest that it is the result of divine dictation … We mean that the men who did the writing were actively seeking God’s will, inscribing accounts of God’s dealing with human life, and that the spiritual reliability of these accounts was tested over long periods of time by the people for whom they were written” [Frank E. Wilson, Faith and Practice Revised Edition (Morehouse-Barlow Co., 1967), p. 45)]. In that testing over the centuries, the Bible has proven itself to be the reliable outcome of “the co-operation of two unequal, but equally necessary forces: divine grace and human will” [Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church New Edition (Penguin Books, 1993), p. 222].

The Bible is both divine and human. It is divinely inspired but humanly written. And it is a faithful record of God’s self-disclosure to humanity.

So, what’s the point of God’s self-disclosure through Holy Scripture? Why did God cause the Bible to be written?

This is an important question, for if we don’t know the purpose of the Bible – if we don’t know what it was made to do – we won’t know how to rightly use it. We rightly use the Bible when we do so in accordance with the purpose for which God caused it to be written. And according to Thomas Cranmer’s collect God caused the writing of scripture for two primary reasons: “for our learning” and so that “we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of eternal life … given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.”

By “learning,” Cranmer is not talking about using the Bible like you would use a dictionary, an encyclopedia, an internet search engine, or an instruction manual. We don’t read the Bible just to get information. We read it for moral and spiritual formation. The “learning” Cranmer refers to here has to do with encountering the living God in the pages of the Bible and entering more deeply into a relationship with God, a relationship that changes us.

Scripture is holy because in our engagement with the Word of God recorded in the Bible, we are shaped more and more into the image and likeness of the Word of God: Jesus Christ. And scripture is also holy because it contains all things necessary to salvation. It points to Jesus, the one whose crucifixion and resurrection reveals God’s judgment of sin, God’s love and grace, and God’s decisive act to save us.

The Bible is a divinely inspired but humanly written set of texts that faithfully records God’s self-revelation. It takes a lifetime of hearing, reading, and study in the context of worship and in the company of other faithful Christians to begin sounding the depths of this revelation. As one Christian writer has said, “Scripture … [is like] a lake whose depths have never been fully plumbed. On the surface it looks like any other lake; that is, we see human words like those in other books. But when we jump into the lake and begin to swim downward, we may be unable to find the bottom” [Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p. 19].

By disclosing to us a God we can never fully understand, we find that Holy Scripture’s meaning cannot be fully exhausted. But scripture’s purpose is as simple, and as profound, as enabling us to know and to trust that God loves us and saves us through Jesus Christ our Lord. And that is more than sufficient.

Let's Talk About Sin, Judgment, and Hell

I preached this sermon several years ago in a small and mostly conservative Episcopal Church. This is the only time I've ever directly addressed the reality/possibility of hell from the pulpit.


Sermon for Proper 26, Year C
BCP Lectionary: Isaiah 1:10-20; Psalm 32; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12; Luke 19:1-10

Every Christian denomination tends to focus on certain things in scripture and tradition to the exclusion of others. In the Episcopal Church, for example, we don’t hear much about sin, judgment, and hell. One reason to not hammer home “fire and damnation” from the pulpit is not just the fact that many Episcopalians want to distance themselves from other Christian denominations. There’s a deeper theological conviction. And that is that the core of Christian preaching is not bad news but good news. We affirm that Christ came into the world, not to destroy, but to save sinners (cf. Luke 9:56). And so we don’t give equal time to sin, judgment, and hell because that makes the problem just as or even more important than Christ’s solution.

Having said that, I also think that one reason the Episcopal Church shies away from talk of sin, judgment, and hell is that, on the whole, we consider ourselves a bit too genteel for such crude theology. Perhaps we like to think that only “fundamentalists” believe in that kind of stuff.

But that’s simply not the case. The Anglican tradition affirms that second only to Holy Scripture, the historic creeds of the undivided Church provide the litmus test for orthodox doctrine. So it’s significant that both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds refer to Christ coming again to judge the living and the dead. And in the traditional wording of the Apostles’ Creed we affirm that Christ “descended into hell” (BCP, p. 53).

The Anglican tradition also upholds the authority of the Bible as "the rule and ultimate standard of faith" ["The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral," BCP, p. 877]. So it’s a striking fact that you can hardly read a page of the Bible without confronting references to sin and judgment. And if we were to strike all references to hell from the Gospels, we’d have to jettison most of our Lord’s parables and teachings. If we take the authority of scripture as "the rule and ultimate standard of faith" and the authority of tradition seriously, then we cannot simply dismiss what they say about sin, judgment, and hell.

Just look at today’s lessons. Speaking the word of the Lord, Isaiah blasts the people of Judah. Sure, they do and say all the right stuff in their Sabbath worship. But then they turn around for the next 6 days and engage in practices that violate God’s laws. Things like oppressing the weak and taking advantage of the vulnerable. Whether its Sabbath-only Jews or Sunday-only Christians, Isaiah makes it clear that God judges the sin of using worship as a veneer to mask and justify seeking our own wills instead of God’s will.

Notice that God offers the people a chance to repent. “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes … ” (Isaiah 1:16). But according to Isaiah, real repentance is more than mouthing the words of a general confession. And it’s more than renouncing former behaviors. Real repentance is about taking up a new way of life. It’s about turning away from self-centered behaviors and turning towards the things of God. For Isaiah, that means taking up things like seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphans, and pleading for widows (cf. Isaiah 1:17). Isaiah tells us that if the people fail to do these things, if they refuse God’s gracious offer and they rebel against the call to change, they will “be devoured by the sword” (Isaiah 1:20).

The Old Testament agrees with the New: the wages of sin is death (cf. Romans 6:23). And so we find a strong theology of judgment for sin in Paul’s 2nd letter to the Thessalonians. Paul warns of the day “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven” (2 Thessalonians 1:7). He says it will be a day when those “who do not obey the gospel … will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thessalonians 1:8, 9). Paul is speaking of the final judgment and the possible punishment of hell. It sounds harsh, but the language Paul uses to describe hell as separation from God squares with what our Catechism says: “ … by hell, we mean eternal death in our rejection of God” (BCP, p. 862).

Holy Scripture and Christian tradition affirm that hell is a real possibility. After all, God created us with free will. We are not automatons or computers who’ve been pre-programmed to obey God’s will. We can and often do misuse our freedom. We can and often do seek our own wills instead of God’s will. We can and often do reap the consequences. And as scripture teaches, the most extreme consequence of our sins is the eternal death of hell.

It’s been said that hell is a prison cell whose door locks from the inside. That’s an important image because it conveys a fundamental truth. God doesn’t want anybody thrown into that cell. And God doesn’t put anybody in that cell. We do it to ourselves. And we hold the key to the door.

Hell is a real possibility, but thanks be to God, it’s not a foregone conclusion. Jesus Christ crucified for our sins and risen triumphant over the grave has seen to that. So it’s absolutely vital that we hear Isaiah and Paul in the context of the fullness of the gospel.

When we proclaim the mystery of faith in today’s Eucharistic prayer that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again, we’re not proclaiming reasons to be afraid. We’re proclaiming the reasons why we are confident that nothing in all of creation – including, sin, death, and hell – can separate us from God’s love in Christ. No matter how far gone someone may be, redemption is always possible.

It even happened for Zacchaeus. And if it can happen for Zacchaeus, it can happen for anybody. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. You’ll recall that tax collectors were traitors to their country, desecrators of the commandments, and apostates to Israel’s God. And why? Because Jewish tax collectors in 1st Century Palestine were collaborators with the Roman occupation. Tax collectors were just the sort of people you’d expect to reap “the punishment of eternal destruction” so vividly described by Paul (2 Thessalonians 1:9). So as a chief tax collector, you’d expect there to be a special place in the bowels of hell reserved just for Zacchaeus. Besides the fact that he’s the very incarnation of moral depravity and apostasy, Zacchaeus has gotten obscenely rich off of other people’s suffering. The people hate his guts!

And yet, this moral scum bag named Zacchaeus finds salvation. How did it happen?

The same way it happens for us.

Zacchaeus heard about Jesus. He sought out Jesus. And in seeking Jesus, he discovered that Jesus was seeking him. Zacchaeus accepted Jesus’ invitation. He opened his door and welcomed Jesus into his home. And Zacchaeus was willing to make reparations for the wrongs he had done. “Lord, I’m going to give to the poor. And anyone I’ve defrauded I’ll pay back four times over” (Luke 19:8). This guy is serious about repentance! In response, Jesus exclaims: “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9).

Zacchaeus opened the door to the hell of his life and he let Jesus come in. And letting Jesus in meant the transformation of Zacchaeus' life.

My friends, there’s no point in whitewashing the truth. Sin and God’s judgment of sin are real. Hell is a possible outcome of misused freedom. But God’s mercy and grace trump sin, judgment, and hell. “The wages of sin is death,” the apostle Paul writes, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

Jesus descends to the dead and even into hell itself to save us. And nothing we do can ever possibly change the truth of Jesus’ love or the reality that he stands at the door of our lives, knocking. Like Zacchaeus, it’s up to us to unlock and open that door and let him in. “For behold,: our Lord says, “I stand at the door, and knock. And if anyone hears my voice and opens the door – anyone! – I will come in, sit at the table, and share a feast beyond your wildest dreams” (cf. Revelation 3:20).

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Ephraim Radner, Jerry Bowers, and Loyalty to the Episcopal Church

I recently attended a conference with Ephraim Radner. An Episcopal priest, Radner was formerly the rector of Ascension Episcopal Church in Boulder, Colorado. He currently serves as Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliff College at the University of Toronto. Radner is also a Senior Fellow with the Anglican Communion Institute. The author of numerous books and articles, Radner’s Hope Among the Fragments: The Broken Church and Its Engagement of Scripture (Brazos Press, 2004) has been described by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams as “potentially one of the most important contributions you are likely to read on the current tensions and conflicts over the church's limits and identity.”

Radner has made a name for himself in the Episcopal Church and across the broader Anglican Communion as a conservative theologian whose views merit serious attention. His knowledge of Church history and theology is encyclopedic. His ability to apply insights from the past to the present situation of the Episcopal Church in particular, and to the Christian Church more broadly, is creative and insightful (whether or not one agrees with him). He's open to dialogue and responds graciously to questions and comments even when it's clear that he does not agree with the position taken by the other.

After reading Hope Among the Fragments and spending time with him at the conference in formal sessions and informally over meals, I can see why some conservatives in the Church are upset with him. Yes, he is a bona fide conservative Christian. He makes no apologies for that. But he’s also deeply loyal (albeit sometimes as the loyal opposition) to the Episcopal Church. His loyalty incurs the wrath of some conservatives, as evidenced by his public resignation from the Anglican Communion Network and his rejection of schism (see this and this at “The Anglican Centrist”).

In a passage from Hope Among the Fragments that I take to be the heart of his ecclesial vision, here's how Radner articulates his position. It's a lengthy passage, but worth quoting in full:

One way of looking at the present conflict within our own churches is to see it as an insistence, on the part of various players, to heal that sickness and to rewrite the plot of the drama of which they are parts so as to exclude the length and detail of its anguished elaboration. In contrast, the history of the Church, which is the history of the Lord writ small and long, proclaims: It is for the sake of charity that we suffer our disagreements; it is for the sake of truth that we love the liar; it is for the sake of the bride that it receives as her gift her beloved's body as her own. The irony of Christian patience is that it is an eternal hastening into the midst of this story, rather than one that hurries to break out of it. And we are perhaps called to judge our practical reactions to the array of our ecclesial anxieties - over incompetent and unfaithful bishops, over corrupted prayers and unjust stewards, over shallow understandings and venal missions, over uncaring guardians and unheeding tenants - judge them according to the standard of such a passion. 
No clear directives emerge from such a judgment. Those who wish to know if they must follow this line, or resist along that, or compromise upon this other, are given no certainties in their choices simply because they are subject themselves to the scriptural shape of Jesus' life. But they at least know that they cannot run away - and, because it is ultimately his life, that there is even redemption in staying put! There are not many bodies, some true and some false, some loving and some uncharitable. These are distractions from the one story, and the embrace of this story cannot sustain the parsing of proprieties that today so grips our distorted sense of integrity. Readiness for love - truth bound in unity - is a single and extended temporal exertion. It is embodied in God's subjugation to time in Christ Jesus, and the Church finds its own readiness in his form. There is no escape from this particular fate and promise. And therein are the kisses of God's peace for his people enjoyed (Song 1:2; 8:1, 10). [Hope Among the Fragments, p. 120]

I think that Radner is not only a worthy model for what conservatives can offer the Church and why we need them. He also blows away stereotypes of what conservatives are really like for centrists and liberals who take the time and make the effort to seriously engage his work.

So I couldn’t help but think about Ephraim Radner and what I’ve learned from his work and from spending time with him at conference when I read this piece by a conservative Pittsburgh Episcopalian named Jerry Bowers. Here’s the rationale Bowers gives for standing firm against schism and remaining loyal to the Episcopal Church:

My wife is a reader at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in McKeesport. ... This past summer, Bishop Duncan instructed my wife and hundreds of other readers in the diocese to omit the prayer for Katharine. Katharine Jefferts Schori has been a frequent target for conservatives in the U.S. church ever since she was elected presiding bishop in 2006. Coming on the heels of the installation of an active and outspoken homosexual bishop, the elevation of a woman of liberal sympathies seemed a bridge too far for many conservatives. 
It appeared at the time that omitting the prayer for Katharine was a steppingstone to where the bishop was really trying to take us -- outside of the Episcopal Church. You see, to include Katharine in the prayers was to acknowledge her office, and to acknowledge her office was to acknowledge our obligation to her. 
Our suspicions were confirmed on Nov. 2, when the Diocese of Pittsburgh voted overwhelmingly to change its constitution to permit separation from the Episcopal Church USA. 
When my wife, Susan, asked me for advice about the prayer directive, I told her that Katharine was elected lawfully under the standards of the Episcopal Church. Robert was using his authority to tell her to disregard Katharine's authority. When there is a disruption in the chain of authority, I said, "look to the highest authority." He said, "Love your enemies, pray for those who despitefully use you." If you should pray for your enemies, should you not pray even more for friends with whom you disagree?
I am not a liberal. I think the Episcopal Church made a terrible mistake when it installed Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire in 2004. It did the church no favors when it trod the historic standards of Anglicanism under foot in a rush to make some sort of political point. It did Father Robinson no good to turn this deeply wounded man into a cause celebre with no thought to the pressure it would impose (driving him eventually into rehab). It did the world no favor to turn the church into an echo of the sexual revolution rather than a beacon out of it. Many commandments were broken, most notably that "they should be one, Father, even as You and I are one." 
But the solution does not lie in breaking more commandments. The priests who voted overwhelmingly for secession this month had taken an oath of loyalty to the Episcopal Church at the time of their ordination. That oath holds whether our guys win every battle or not. ...
Secession is not the biblical pattern of resistance to flawed authority. Young David served under a tyrannical and apostate King named Saul. David submitted to Saul's authority and he resisted the urge to revolt or secede. He remained faithful to Israel and Saul until the end, and then, because of his patience, became king himself. 
David's great (28 times) grandson, Jesus, was a reader in the synagogue despite its shortcomings. He worshipped in the temple despite its corruption and oppression. King Herod was a murderous crook and the temple priesthood were his hired cronies and yet Mary and Joseph and Jesus were there year after year, making offerings, saying prayers, talking with rabbis. 
When St. Paul was beaten by the high priest he showed him deference, not contempt. "You salute the rank," as they say in the military, "not the man." 
That's because the authority of a priest or bishop doesn't come from him; it comes from God. The failings of the man, or woman, don't erase that authority. Saul would regularly try to murder David. He disregarded God and took on the responsibility to offer sacrifices himself. He murdered faithful priests. Through all of this, David saluted the office long after the man had outlived his merit.
On Oct. 31., the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church USA sent a letter to the bishop of Pittsburgh, directing him not to split the diocese from the denomination. Bishop Duncan replied by quoting Martin Luther, "Here I stand. I can do no other." 
It's a powerful quote, but a misuse of history. Martin Luther didn't leave the Roman Catholic Church; he was kicked out. He decided to "stand" and fight. It's ironic that Bishop Duncan quoted Luther's pledge to "stand" in order to justify his intention to "walk." 
Are my fellow conservatives fully aware of the biblical and patristic teachings on schism? How do they justify a break with the Episcopal Church to which they have literally sworn loyalty? How do they justify taking Episcopal property with them? Given Paul's command to the first-century Corinthian Church not to address church issues in secular courts, how do they justify the inevitable legal battles that accompany a schism? How much will the litigation cost? Will the money come from our offerings? 
There are moral questions, too. If we break with the Episcopal Church in America over gay priests, how can we then align ourselves with African bishops who tolerate polygamist priests? Paul says that a church leader is to be "the husband of one wife." Do we think that the word "husband" is inerrant but the word "one" is not? 
If the Episcopal Church really has become apostate and its current leaders really are enemies of God, then how can we justify leaving the church, its resources and its sheep in their care? If not, how can we justify this separation? 
Yes, there are times when it's necessary to leave one authority for another. When the New Testament writers were forced to deal with this issue, they concluded that they were compelled to obey higher authority at all times, except when it commanded them to disobey God. Roman Emperors were monstrous beasts. The church preached against them and prayed for them to repent, but Christians still obeyed the law. It wasn't until Rome ordered them to stop preaching the gospel and to offer sacrifices to Caesar that the early church was forced to disobey. 
By analogy, New Hampshire can install a whole pride of gay bishops, but we don't break our oath of loyalty to the Episcopal Church until they order us to start installing them here.
Until then, the pattern of David and Jesus holds: Be faithful. Be patient. Be active in good works. And be in prayer for all in authority ... "for Katharine, our presiding bishop; Robert and Henry, our bishops; and Jay, our priest, I pray. Lord, hear our prayer."

(Note also Fr. Jake’s take on Bowers’ piece.)

I can’t pretend to know for sure what Ephraim Radner would say about Jerry Bowers’ piece. But given my reading of Hope Among the Fragments and the time I spent with him at conference, I can’t help but think that Radner would probably concur.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Heresy in the Hymnal

A clergy colleague recently noted a line in the 1982 Hymnal that he described as heretical and said he would not sing. I found this comment particularly interesting since my colleague strikes me as someone left of center who is not invested in doctrinal controversy and debate.

The hymn in question is #324: “Let all mortal flesh keep silence.” Here’s the verse with the suspect line:

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords in human vesture,
in the Body and the Blood
he will give to all the faithful
his own self for heavenly food.

“Lord of lords in human vesture” …

The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that the word “vesture” derives from the Latin vestivus, which is the past participle of vestire, meaning “to clothe.” It also derives from the Vulgar Latin ("the everyday speech of the Roman people, as opposed to literary Latin") word vestitura, meaning “clothing” or “vestments.” So to say that Jesus is “Lord of lords in human vesture” is tantamount to saying that Jesus was clothed in flesh – that his body was a mere covering for his “real self,” sort of like a priest vesting in alb, stole, and chasuble.

It all sounds rather suspiciously like a denial of the full humanity of Jesus along the lines of docetism. Here’s what theologian Shirley C. Guthrie says about this heresy:

The heresy is called “docetism” from the Greek verb that means “to seem.” It is a heresy that threatened to destroy the Christian faith almost as soon as it was born and is just as popular and dangerous in the twentieth century as it was in the first. Docetism asserts very strongly that Jesus was divine but denies that he was really human. He only “seemed” to be a human being. Actually he was God disguised as a man. His human nature was only a mask or a costume behind which his true divine self was concealed. Jesus was not a truly human being but a spiritual being who was not really subject to all the limitations and problems of earthly existence. In him God was only pretending to be with us in the midst of our sinful, suffering, creaturely existence. His purpose was not to help us in the world but to help us escape from the world [Christian Doctrine Revised Edition (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), p. 237; emphasis in text].

Part of what makes all of this so fascinating is that the words to Hymn 324 are a paraphrase of the Liturgy of St. James. (The words from the liturgy that appear in Hymn 324 were paraphrased by Gerard Moultrie (1829-1885), an Anglican priest and poet.) One site says that this liturgy, “which was until recently only celebrated on the island of Zakynthos on his feast on 23 October and in Jerusalem on the Sunday after Christmas, is today celebrated in an increasing number of Orthodox churches. It was the ancient rite of Jerusalem, as the Mystagogic Catecheses of St Cyril of Jerusalem imply. It is still, in its Syrian form, the principal liturgy of the Syrian Oriental Church, both in Syriac and, in the ancient Syrian Orthodox Church of India, in Malayalam and English.”

A Google search will take you to several websites that include a translation of the Liturgy of St. James in its entirety. The part of the liturgy lifted for the words to Hymn 324 come from a cherubic hymn sung before the Great Entrance when the unconsecrated bread and wine are brought forward. Here are two translations of that cherubic hymn (notice that neither one of them says anything about “Lord of lords in human vesture”):

Let all mortal flesh keep silent, and with fear and trembling stand. Ponder nothing earthly-minded, for the King of kings and Lord of lords advances to be slain and given as food to the faithful. Before him go the choirs of Angels, with every rule and authority, the many-eyed Cherubim and the six-winged Seraphim, veiling their sight and crying out the hymn: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Let all mortal flesh be silent, and stand with fear and trembling, and meditate nothing earthly within itself:—
For the King of kings and Lord of lords, Christ our God, comes forward to be sacrificed, and to be given for food to the faithful; and the bands of angels go before Him with every power and dominion, the many-eyed cherubim, and the six-winged seraphim, covering their faces, and crying aloud the hymn, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Moultrie’s paraphrase turns the theological intention of the Liturgy of St. James on its head.

A hymn is not just a piece of music with words. A hymn is first and foremost a theological text, and thus, if included in our Hymnal, should teach and communicate the faith of the Church. So while I personally love the tune of Hymn 324, I am dismayed to find that Moultrie’s paraphrase of the Liturgy of St. James espouses a docetic Christology at variance with the faith of the Church as articulated in the classical creeds and in the liturgies of The Book of Common Prayer.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Atonement is the Worst Heresy

"I think the atonement is the worst heresy ever perpetrated against Christianity, and it is a way that the tradition has betrayed Jesus Christ."

That's a direct quotation from theologian Rita Nakashima Brock. I came across it in a video sample for "Saving Jesus," a DVD-curriculum produced by "Living the Questions."

Concerning the "Saving Jesus" program, here's what the "Living the Questions" website says:

Ever feel like Jesus has been kidnapped by the Christian Right or the Secular Left? Saving Jesus is a revolutionary DVD-based small group exploration of Jesus Christ for the third millennium. ... Join Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Matthew Fox, Amy-Jill Levine, James Forbes and a host of others for a conversation around the relevance of Jesus Christ for today.

I'm not a fan of the Borg-Crossan-Pagels-Spong contingent, nor do I find Matthew Fox to be "one of the most prophetic voices of our time". Nevertheless, I agree that the Church needs to offer something more intellectually open and grounded in sound scholarship than some of the stuff coming from the Religious Right.

But not like this. Not at the price of jettisoning foundational tenets of the Christian faith.

In one sweeping statement, Rita Nakashima Brock doesn't merely blow satisfaction and penal substitution theories of the atonement out of the water. By making such a categorical condemnation, she jettisons any conception of the atonement at all as a "heresy" that betrays Jesus. This means rejecting, not just any particular theological theory of the atonement, but also the whole narrative trajectory found in each of the Gospels, in the theology of the apostle Paul, and, indeed, in the New Testament as a whole - not to mention the faith of the Church as articulated in creeds, confessions, and liturgies for the past 2,000 years.

If Brock is right, then one of the first things we need to do is jettison the Eucharistic prayers in The Book of Common Prayer. Note this language from Rite I:

All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world ... (p. 334).

Rite II does not adequately improve anything. Consider, for example, this language from Eucharistic Prayer A:

... when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us ... (p. 362).
He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world (p. 362).

Note also this language from Eucharistic Prayer C:

By his blood, he reconciled us. By his wounds, we are healed (p. 370).

And then there's the language of the Institution Narratives ("this is my body," "this is my blood"), language which makes little religious sense apart from some idea that Jesus' death is not merely tragic, but also redemptive.

If praying shapes believing, and if Brock is right, then the Prayer Book liturgies shape us to pray heresy that betrays Jesus because we pray the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross every time we gather for the Eucharist.

I don't see anything particularly "progressive" about "saving Jesus" by rejecting the Church's faith about who Jesus is and why Jesus died. Surely there's a better way to be "progressive" and to make the faith "relevant" than this!